January 31, 2011 2 Comments
The problem with science is that it’s conducted by scientists. And scientists are human.
At least as far as we know.
The reason this is a problem is that human beings are simply not rational creatures. We are far too often guided by emotion—what feels right—as opposed to what’s actually backed up by empirical evidence. And even when it comes to empirical evidence, often that evidence is incorrectly interpreted, improperly gathered, or just plain flat out wrong. Intentionally or unintentionally.
An extremely interesting article recently published in the Atlantic (which I highly recommend) highlights this. The article is about Dr. John Ioannidis, a Greek medical researcher who, in 2005, published two papers on the amount of errors in medical science.
The first, in PLoS Medicine, describes how 80% of non-randomized medical studies are wrong, 25% of randomized studies are wrong, and 10% of the strictest large-scale randomized studies are wrong. The second paper, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals that out of the 49 most highly regarded research findings in the past 13 years, when 34 of them were retested, 14 were shown to be wrong or exaggerated.
This is not good. One specific example is the 1998 study which linked the MMR vaccine to autism. It was found that the researchers deliberately distorted their results, and now we’re seeing a rise in cases of the measles in Europe and the U.S.
And of course the reason that someone would intentionally publish incorrect results is that science is highly competitive, and often in order to secure funding—or often even keep their job—a researcher has to publish exciting, new, and controversial papers. And if the actual results aren’t any of those things, there’s a lot of pressure on researchers to fiddle with the results until they become something that would seem worthy of being published in a top journal.
But the mistakes are not always intentional. Sometimes they’re due to the way we handle statistics. For example, a 95% confidence interval—which is a standard benchmark—means that there is only a 5% chance that the observed effect was due to random chance, and not to the drug or whatever else the scientist was testing. But if hundreds of studies come out every single year, many of them are bound to be wrong even if the researchers are honest and the experiments were conducted well. This ScienceNews article gives a more thorough description of the problem.
Of course, there’s another very important problem with science: the public. If scientists want access to government money, they have to be able to convince the public that the work they’re doing is worthwhile. Not always an easy task, considering the fact that the public, just like the scientific community, is comprised of irrational humans.
Just look at global warming. The consensus among the scientific community is that global warming is real, happening right now, and is primarily caused by humans. Unfortunately, a lot of people out there don’t want to believe this because it makes them uncomfortable on an emotional level. They don’t want to admit that they’re a part of what’s harming the global ecosystem, and they don’t want to have to change their behavior.
Unfortunately, in response to this many scientists have taken the sensationalist approach, insisting on using words like “catastrophic” and “irreversible” to try and gain public support. This approach can backfire horribly though, as seen with the IPCC 2007 report which stated, among other things, that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. Climate change deniers latched onto this, and used it to come to the rather dubious conclusion that because that one number was wrong, all climate science must be a lie, and all climate scientists themselves are godless commies, or something.
So yeah, basically the problem with science is the fact that people—both scientists and “normies”, as we like to call the rest of you—are irrational creatures who often use emotion rather than evidence to reach conclusions. And this is a problem that needs to be addressed, because regardless of the severity of global warming, our population is increasing and our resources are dwindling, and we’re going to need scientific solutions to these problems. And in order to achieve those solutions, we’re going to need a public who is supportive of scientific endeavors.
At least in the short term. As I’ve mentioned before, once my doomsday device is ready none of you will have to worry about any of this anymore.